Don Byas and Lucky Thompson
I’ll be playing Benny Golson’s 1962 quartet recording Free in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, a complement to last week’s golden anniversary feature on Benny's Jazztet partner Art Farmer.
Golson always brings Lucky Thompson to mind, and LT conjurs Don Byas, who, having come to prominence in the early 40’s, is at the top of this three-tenor lineage. Like Lester Young, the man he succeeded with Count Basie in 1941, Byas was a mature 27-year-old stylist by the time he began appearing on records. His debut with Basie, “Harvard Blues,” contains one of the Swing Era’s greatest solos in the blues idiom.
(Don Byas, in cap, in Paris, c. late-40's; Dizzy Gillespie on left; Sarah Vaughan on right)
Like Byas, Thompson had an impressive harmonic command that was fully-formed by the mid-40’s when he was in his early 20’s. Check him out on this 1945 recording of “Cherokee” by George’s Dukes and Duchess. Lucky should have been the leader! While both tenormen had extensive big band experience and were rhythmically in tune with Swing Era values, they were highly regarded by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Byas was in Dizzy’s groundbreaking bebop band with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington, and Max Roach at the Onyx Club in 1944; Thompson recorded with Bird in 1947, Thelonious Monk in ’52, and shared the front line with Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s classic recording of “Walkin’” in 1954.
Byas may have become a more celebrated figure had he remained in the States, but he joined the band that Don Redman brought to Europe in 1946 and never returned. After living in Paris for many years, he moved to Holland where he married, had a family, and died in 1972 at age 59. He recorded extensively during his first decade in Paris, and sounded great on a session that Cannonball Adderley produced on him and Bud Powell in 1961, but he was apparently embittered by his lack of acclaim, and an earlier slight at not having been offered a job by Duke Ellington when Ben Webster left the band in 1943. (In looking over some notes of a conversation I had with Archie Shepp 30 years ago for last week’s blog entry on Archie, I came upon a reference he made to sharing a place with Byas in the late 60’s in Paris, and of a memorable night when the two tenors sat in with the Ellington orchestra on “C-Jam Blues.”)
Here’s Byas in Scandinavia on extremely rare (and overexposed) footage playing “Lover Man” and “Autumn Leaves.” Note how his introduction on the latter hints at the melody of his old friend Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
Perhaps it was his youthful command of sophisticated musical materials that earned Eli “Lucky” Thompson his nickname, but as his career unfolded it proved to be a misnomer. Despite the beauty and brilliance of his style, Thompson enjoyed little commercial success, and he became wary of the music business. As Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary, “Fiercely intelligent, Mr. Thompson was outspoken in his feelings about what he considered the unfair control of the jazz business by record companies, music publishers and booking agents.”
(Lucky Thompson in Bologna, Italy, 1969. Photo by Roberto Polillo)
Thompson lived in France between 1957 and ’62, then in Switzerland in the late ‘60’s. In between these European sojourns, he made a couple of outstanding sessions for Prestige, including Lucky Strikes, and while he later taught at Dartmouth College in the early ‘70’s, his life gradually unraveled to a point where he became a peripatetic figure out of touch with most of his former colleagues. When I met Milt Jackson at a Modern Jazz Quartet concert at UMass in 1985, I immediately asked him about Lucky, whom he’d recorded with 30 years earlier for Savoy. Bags handed me off to John Lewis, who said that he’d encountered Lucky in Seattle but that he was despondent and no longer interested in playing music. By the time of his death in 2005 at age 81, the Times reported that he’d spent the preceding decades “mostly living in the woods or in shelter offered by friends. He did not own a saxophone. He walked long distances, and was reported to have been in excellent, muscular shape.” The caption in the clip below mentions Alzheimer's.
In 2009, Uptown Records brought out of pair of dates on Lucky Thompson, New York City, 1964-65, the first a Little Theater concert featuring LT's compositions and arrangements for an octet; the latter an aircheck from the Half Note with a version of Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" that makes for essential listening. Yesterday I found this footage of Lucky playing “I’ll Remember April,” and noted that it was posted to YouTube a year ago and so far only 586 people have viewed it. Then in the right-hand column I spotted a YouTube of Nina Simone singing “Love Me or Leave Me,” which has been viewed over a million times. Not to take anything away from Nina, who like Lucky was a troubled soul at odds with society, but the disparity in viewership struck me as consistent with the profoundly unlucky life of Lucky Thompson.